NG Land Management Planning Committee Takes Up Solar Development with Input from Residents

At a workshop on March 27, 2019, the Land Management Planning Committee (LMPC) heard from community members about development and regulation of solar energy in New Gloucester According to Town Planner Scott Hastings, members of the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee had recently suggested the need to examine the town ordinances particularly as they relate to installation of large solar arrays. Before proceeding with any such changes, the LMPC decided to ask for public input and try to get ahead of the issue before any large developers might approach the town

The discussion covered the wide range of uses and sizes of solar arrays, and resulting issues regarding location and impact, taxation, and state regulation, among other topics.  The committee directed Hastings to research and bring back recommendations concerning large-scale arrays, a particular near-term concern, while the committee works toward a comprehensive ordinance for residential and commercial uses. 

As Hastings noted at the outset, the town currently does not have any zoning ordinances or performance standards that are specific to solar arrays, whether for residential use, use accessory to a business, or large commercial use.  The town code enforcement officer has been permitting smaller-scale solar arrays on a case-by-case basis. 

The workshop discussion revealed complex challenges of regulation—and taxation—given how varied solar projects can be.  New Gloucester resident Mark Power, who works for a company that does commercial installations, noted that “taxes are the elephant in the room.”  Towns in Maine and elsewhere are grappling with how to tax residential solar arrays versus larger commercial arrays.  According to Power, some towns create specific incentives or have special tax rates for residential or other smaller solar power arrays; others re-assess on the added value to the structure.  One question was how and whom to tax in instances where a large commercial solar company leases land from a local landowner.

Changes in regulations at the state level will also have an impact on the incentives and allowable size of solar arrays.  Community solar arrays currently have a cap on their size.  Changes in legislation in Augusta are under consideration and may increase the incentives and interest level in solar energy for residential and non-residential solar.

Steve Chandler noted that he had been approached by three commercial solar companies that wanted to lease large parcels (e.g., over 400 acres) of his land because the property is flat, close to the turnpike, and near a power line.

Resident Terry DeWan, a landscape architect, commented on the importance of considering the visual impact of solar arrays, particularly large-scale arrays.  He discussed the need to identify areas in town that are considered of particular value as open, green, or scenic space.  This kind of inventory, through the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee, for example, would help protect areas where solar arrays would not be desirable and instead direct development to those areas where the community wants arrays and of certain sizes. DeWan also noted that the creation of large solar arrays is complex and involves a lot of infrastructure such as transmission lines, lighting, and security.

On the questions of location and impacts, Mark Power noted that Massachusetts has had a large growth in solar energy and that advocates there are now advancing options that create incentives to place solar panels on impervious services (e.g. parking lots, roofs, landfills) and disincentives for solar on open green field space.

Commenters also noted that New Gloucester is in a flight path to Lewiston/Auburn and the impact of glare from solar panels needs to be considered and researched.

Committee members were very appreciative of the community input and thanked the members of the public who came and shared their experience and knowledge.  The town planner handed out examples of ordinances from South Portland and Washington, Maine.  The LMPC members and others discussed the timing of any ordinance changes and how best to coordinate with the Comprehensive Plan Update  Committee.

The Committee discussed the possibility of having a moratorium on some forms of solar energy (for example, large solar farms/arrays) in the short term while they develop a more comprehensive ordinance.  The Committee directed town planner Hastings to research and make recommendations on how to define large solar farms/arrays.  That could inform the possible implementation of a moratorium on large arrays while the town continues to clarify and develop ordinances for residential/noncommercial uses. Any such moratorium would have to be time-limited and voted on at a town meeting after a public hearing.

A video of the full LMPC solar energy workshop is available at